Archive | March, 2021

Surfacing (Short Film) (2009)

18 Mar

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Hannah, the main character of the short film “Surfacing,” is an athletic college swimmer with temporal lobe epilepsy. In the film’s opening scene, she’s preparing to compete in a latest swim meet when she knows a seizure is coming. She knows she still has some time before it happens, and she’s nervous yet familiar with these feelings at the same time. She swims the laps to get it over with…and then has the seizure almost immediately after she’s out of the water. The next scene shows a new side of Hannah–happier, livelier, more energetic, ready to go out partying for a night on the town with her friends. One of her friends, who I’m assuming hasn’t known Hannah very long, questions this behavior, to which one friend answers: “She’s always like this after a seizure.” In comes another friend, who actually wrote a paper based on Hannah’s condition, to explain (to the friend and to those viewing the film) that it’s a condition known as “Geschwind syndrome.”

I’m kind of ashamed to admit that I had to look up “Geschwind syndrome” for confirmation. I shouldn’t have done that, for two reasons. 1) That kind of confession can mean I didn’t put any faith in the filmmakers behind “Surfacing” having done their homework before making a film about the subject in question. And 2) Even if it wasn’t real (which now I know it is), the film should still make me believe (which it did).

“Surfacing,” which runs at about 30 minutes and was written and directed by Bruce Hutchinson (whose 2014 short drama Sidearoadia I greatly admired), shows Hannah at a dilemma with this condition. She can keep swimming, possibly risking brain damage if she has another seizure too late during another meet, or she can get her illness treated. Her seizure aftereffects are what make her feel truly alive, so she has to decide whether or not she wants to be rid of them for that very reason. But on the other hand, her coach (Pammi Fabert), her sister (FE Mosby), and her best friend (Jennifer Richman) all grow more concerned about her as the seizures seem to be more frequent lately.

Hannah is played with a truly marvelous performance by Kristy Barrington (who, since this short, has gone on to a memorable side role in Mud). It’s a deeply layered portrayal of a suffering yet free-spirited young individual who lives in the now and must consider the future, if not for herself then for her loved ones. The quiet moment in which she feels the entire weight of her world crashing down on her, which comes at around the 25-minute mark, is so moving and convincing and beautifully done. (I’ll even go as far as to say it rivals the best moments of “Sidearoadia,” which Hutchinson made five years after “Surfacing.”)

The skillful direction from writer-director Hutchinson and casually observant cinematography from Chris Churchill help keep “Surfacing” on a grounded level. But Kristy Barrington is this film. She exhibits great screen presence here and makes an already-interesting character even more fascinating.

“Surfacing” can be seen here. I recommend you give it a watch.

My Salinger Year (2021)

6 Mar

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“My Salinger Year,” based on the memoir by Joanna Rakoff, is set in 1995, where bookstores took over big cities and big business feared computers and the Internet and people actually read physical printed works in magazines and books–being published back then meant a great deal then than it does now!

In “My Salinger Year,” written and directed by Philippe Felardeau, lead actress Margaret Qualley (Andie McDowall’s daughter, best known for “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”) shines as aspiring young writer Joanna. Upon leaving Berkeley to pursue writing in New York City, Joanna has a bright optimism that foresees a bright future for her career that she even takes a cheap, crappy apartment because she knows all the best writers started off in cheap, crappy apartments. She also takes a job as an assistant for a tough, no-nonsense literary agent named Margaret (Sigourney Weaver), whose agency represents none other than J.D. Salinger. (Salinger is reclusive, but he still telephones Margaret every now and again. Sometimes, Joanna answers the call–even though Joanna hasn’t even read “The Catcher in the Rye,” she’s still starstruck.)

Joanna isn’t entirely fulfilled as a “secretary,” as she sees the job, but it does have its perks such as reading Salinger’s fan mail…and then there are unpleasantries such as writing back to the fans to bear the bad news that Salinger doesn’t receive his fan mail anymore. (The agency has kept it ever since the Mark David Chapman incident, during which he held a copy of Catcher in the Rye when he was found shortly after assassinating John Lennon.)

Also, as expected, Margaret is not the easiest person to work for–Sigourney Weaver, playing the part, is always great at making everyone feel inferior to her. (But as expected in roles like this, she does have a pivotal scene in which she lets her guard down and lets us see the real person.)

Soon enough, Joanna takes it upon herself to respond to the fan letters personally, because as she sees it, why would anyone want to get a response like “sorry we cannot forward your kind words to Mr. Salinger?” This may anger some, but help others–but at least she’s writing and not dictating. She also manages to strike up somewhat of a friendship with Salinger himself over the telephone. (Salinger is played in both voice and silhouette by Tim Post.)

I love the atmosphere of this 1995 setting–maybe it’s the literary setting and all the books lined up against the walls, but it has a lovely nostalgic feel to it. I also liked the little touches such as Joanna and her novel-writing overly opinionated boyfriend Don (Douglas Booth) washing dishes in the bathtub because THEIR APARTMENT HAS NO SINK–and there’s also these inserts of the fans who wrote the letters, many of whom are not as deranged or weird as we might think, which I thought was a nice touch.

And being a writer myself, I identified with the main character feeling less inspired as she works an unfulfilling job. When Joanna goes for so long without doing her own writing, I feel for her. When she’s given a kind offer to submit work to the New Yorker, I’m happy for her. I want her to get back to work doing what she loves doing!

I mentioned that Margaret Qualley shined in the role of Joanna, and that might be an understatement. As much as I liked her in movies like “The Nice Guys” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” I waited for her to truly impress me with a role that gave me a lot to process. But with Joanna in “My Salinger Year,” there are so much power to it that she’s able to deliver in a wonderful performance. I wished Joanna the absolute best in the end, and that’s a tribute to Qualley’s work.

Even though I’m giving “My Salinger Year” 3.5 stars (with only a few nitpicks here or there), I give Margaret Qualley’s performance an even more enthusiastic 4-star rating.

Spree (2020) – Rent-A-Pal (2020)

1 Mar
Joe Keery, “Spree”

Smith’s Verdicts:

Spree: ***

Rent-A-Pal: ***1/2

This past week, I caught up with three 2020 horror films. One was Freaky. The other two: “Spree” and “Rent-A-Pal.”

One film involves one of our favorite “Strange Things” actors as a cyber-serial-killer, and the other involves Wil Wheaton as one of the scariest villains of the past year. (Didn’t think that second one could happen, but here we are.)

“Spree” is an uneven but intriguing cyber-thriller told from the perspectives of different livestreams, one of which is hosted by a pathetic loner named Kurt (played by Joe Keery). Kurt is obsessed to the point of making it big as a large social-media presence with thousands of followers–he’s tried everything by this point to bring in the views and nothing seems to work for him (even when he tries interfering with the streams of his frenemy Bobby (Josh Ovalle), who’s a mega influencer). But now he has the answer to get everyone’s attention…

As a driver for a rideshare app called Spree, Kurt documents himself picking up passengers…and instead of dropping them off to their destinations, he murders them! At first, no one watching (the numbers aren’t even in the double digits) thinks it’s real; they think it’s an act, causing Kurt to get more extreme with his victims. And of course, all Kurt cares about is gaining more and more followers/viewers, so he does everything he can to up his game (and the body count).

The social commentary is obvious and the film sags in the middle act particularly, but director/co-writer Eugene Kotlyarenko uses dark humor and a darkly brilliant leading performance from Joe Keery to keep things interesting. “Spree” has enough clever tricks up its sleeve to keep cyber-savvy viewers invested.

Wil Wheaton in “Rent-A-Pal”–can this “friend” be trusted?

Now…as for “Rent-A-Pal,” I didn’t know anything before streaming it on Hulu recently, aside from Wil Wheaton is in it and some critics have praised it as one of the best thrillers of 2020.

I didn’t realize I was getting into this deeply disturbing, brilliantly crafted, and truly twisted character study of a lonely 40-year-old named David (played very well by Brian Landis Folkins) who…well, I’ll keep it spoiler free, but I’ll just talk about the story’s setup.

The film is set in 1990. David, a bachelor who cares for his Alzheimers-stricken mother, uses a video dating service to try and find a romantic partner, but to no avail. He then buys another videotape called “Rent-A-Pal,” in which its host, a seemingly nice, charismatic guy named Andy (Wil Wheaton), sits in the middle of the frame, talks directly to the viewer, and leaves in pauses to simulate a conversation. It doesn’t do much for David at first, but the lonelier he gets, he more into the tape he becomes. He’s soon able to partake in conversations with Andy, which leads to Andy being his confidant and his best friend.

And…that’s all I’m going to describe for you. The idea of this sad, lonely, depressed man taking comfort in a friendship through someone in a TV screen is interesting enough…but where it goes from there is riveting. I don’t even know who’s creepier here–David, for having this seemingly one-sided relationship with a videotape he watches repeatedly, or Andy, whose friendly demeanor and prerecorded phrases seem to have alternative meanings. I’m going to have to go with Andy as the scarier choice, mostly because we don’t know anything about the person who made the video in the first place, and that itself gets unnerving, the more I think about everything I saw in the film before. (Something else I like about “Rent-A-Pal”–there are no easy answers at work here.)

Both “Spree” and “Rent-A-Pal” feature unbalanced main characters seeking purpose and companionship, whether personal or virtual…but of course, they’re both horror movies, so you can expect some nasty business. Both films work as parables of such a concept, and I recommend them both (particularly “Rent-A-Pal”) for giving us unique, original ways of putting us in the heads of each of those disturbing individuals.